God’s Revelation
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God’s Revelation

Isaiah 66:2  (ID: 2276)

When the prophet Isaiah had a vision of God’s immensity, he responded with a humble contrition that left him trembling. Weak and undone with wonder, Isaiah nevertheless offered himself completely to God’s service. When we examine our own hearts, do we find a similar humility—one compelled by the conviction to tell others of God’s power to save? Alistair Begg helps us explore the biblical characteristics that mark a servant who is obedient to God’s call to proclaim His word.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Pastor’s Study, Volume 4

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23004

Basics 2002

Partners in the Gospel Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23502

Sermon Transcript: Print

Our gracious God and loving Father, we bless and praise you for ordering our steps and bringing us safely to this day, and expressly to this opportunity that is represented in our coming together from a whole variety of places, in order that we might listen to the Word of God, in order that we might renew our commitment to being involved in biblical ministry, in order that we might be an encouragement to one another through these days, in order that as we part from one another we may go back to the places from which we’ve come to see unbelieving people becoming the committed followers of Jesus Christ.

We humbly acknowledge today that every breath that we breathe and all that we have and are is from your gracious hand. We have nothing to offer of ourselves before you; we thank you that in the Lord Jesus Christ there is that atoning sacrifice for our sins, thereby putting us in a right standing with you, the living and holy God. We’re humbled by this because we know what we are, and we know what we’ve even been today. And were it not for the vastness of your forgiveness and the immensity of your love and the assurance of your Spirit’s power, then we’re not really sure just exactly where we would be.

We pray that, from the very outset of our time, that everything will serve to commend Christ to us—even the reminders of our own inadequacies in planning, the ineffectiveness of our eye for detail, all of these things, that they may become for us simply a means of grace. To this end we pray that you will help each of us to set aside every distraction, the necessary and the unnecessary ones, and if it please you, Lord, that you will use this time as a means of great encouragement in each of our lives. We commend those for whom we have particular cares to you; we give them into your custody now and leave them there, seeking your help and enabling as we proceed, for we pray in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen. Amen.

 Let’s read the Bible together; that’s always the safest thing to do. And I’d like to encourage you to turn to Isaiah chapter 66. And we’ll read from the first verse:

This is what the Lord says:

“Heaven is my throne,
   and the earth is my footstool.
Where is the house you will build for me?
   Where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things,
   and so they came into being?”
            declares the Lord.
“This is the one I esteem:
   he who is humble and contrite in spirit,
   and trembles at my word.
But whoever sacrifices a bull
   is like one who kills a man,
and whoever offers a lamb,
   like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
whoever makes a grain offering
   is like one who presents pig’s blood,
and whoever burns memorial incense,
   like one who worships an idol.
They have chosen their own ways,
   and their souls delight in their abominations;
so I also will choose harsh treatment for them
   and will bring upon them what they dread.
For when I called, no one answered,
   when I spoke, no one listened.
They did evil in my sight
   and chose what displeases me.”
Hear the word of the Lord,
   you who tremble at his word:
“Your brothers who hate you,
   and exclude you because of my name, have said,
‘Let the Lord be glorified,
   that we may see your joy!’
   Yet they will be put to shame.
Hear that uproar from the city,
   hear that noise from the temple!
It is the sound of the Lord
   repaying his enemies all they deserve.
“Before she goes into labor,
   she gives birth;
before the pains come upon her,
   she delivers a son.
[Who’s] ever heard of such a thing?
   Who has ever seen such things?
Can a country be born in a day
   or a nation be brought forth in a moment?
Yet no sooner is Zion in labor
   than she gives birth to her children.
Do I bring to the moment of birth
   and not give delivery?” says the Lord.
“Do I close up the womb
   when I bring to delivery?” says your God.
“Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her,
   all you who love her;
rejoice greatly with her,
   all you who mourn over her.
For you will nurse and be satisfied
   at her comforting breasts;
you will drink deeply
   and delight in her overflowing abundance.”
For this is what the Lord says:
“I will extend peace to her like a river,
   and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream;
you will nurse and be carried on her arm
   and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
   so will I comfort you;
   and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.”

I think I’ll stop there. You may read it for your help right through to the end of the chapter, and it will be familiar territory to many of you.

Well, let’s just pray once again, just for a moment:

Lord God, in the middle of this Monday afternoon, with the rain coming down upon us and the places that we’ve left behind seeking to crush in upon our thinking—even our concerns for the events of these few days before us—we ask now that we might hear your voice, that you will speak to us, Lord, by your Word, and that we might be changed on account of it. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

I want to take as my text for this opening address the second verse of this sixty-sixth chapter of Isaiah—actually, really only the second half of the second verse, a verse that I think will be familiar to you. It’s a verse that I carry around in the flyleaf of my main Bible, my preaching Bible, and it won’t be unfamiliar territory to you. But let’s just look at it as I read it to you again: “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” Or, in the Revised Standard Version, which is the version that I first learned this in, it reads as follows: “But this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.”

Now, I have to be very honest with you and tell you that I come to this responsibility this afternoon in the opening session as a somewhat reluctant servant—not that I don’t desire the opportunity and privilege of opening up the Scriptures, but just the context. I think each of you would understand the sense of diffidence that I have in coming in the framework in which our three distinguished guests, who have come a long way in order to encourage us in the Scriptures, wait, as it were, in the wings in order to encourage us from the Word. Throughout the day I have fought the temptation just to make a run for it. A number of people have asked, “How are you doing?” and I say, “Well, I think I’ll run away before five o’clock comes around.” I think a number of them thought it was an excellent idea, but nobody encouraged me.

The reason that I’m doing what I’m doing is because I want to actually affirm what I try to teach from the Bible, and that is the parity and plurality of eldership, and therefore that we are accountable to one another and we want to be deferential to one another. And so, out of an act of obedience to my colleagues, I’m in the preaching lineup, although I would be very happy, very honestly, to do nothing other than introduce each person in turn.

I think it’s also partly because in the midst of my sabbatical I haven’t been doing much preaching. And I don’t know about you: if you go off for any length of time, you start to wonder, “I wonder if I can do this at all.” And you check with your wife, and she says, “I shouldn’t worry; you’ve never really been able to do in the first place!” And, duly humbled, you say, “Well, I’ll drag myself back to the pulpit the way a sailor drives himself back to the sea.”

I do feel a little bit, in relationship to preaching, though, like the Earl of Rochester in the seventeenth century, a man by the name of John Wilmot. His feelings about parenting are akin to my own feelings about preaching twenty-seven years after my ordination. The good earl said, “Before I got married, I had six theories about bringing up children. Now I have six children and no theories.” And I think we can concur with that: that the longer we go in the task, often the more daunting it becomes.

However, we’re not here to listen just to the voice of men; that would be a triviality beyond explanation. We’re here to listen to what the Lord says. And I hope you paid attention to the opening phrase there of chapter 66, because it begins, “This is what the Lord says.” And we want to pay attention to the call with which the chapter begins—not a unique call; in fact, it permeates the book. If you just go back one page—and I don’t want to do a lot of cross-referencing—but if you go back to the beginning of the previous chapter, 65, you will notice the same thing:

“I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me;
   I was found by those who did not seek me.
To a nation that did not call on my name,
   I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’”[1]

And the heart of the message is God’s self-revelation: “To a nation that did not call on my name, I said…”

And, of course, we know this to be the case, but it is good to affirm it: that the Lord reaches out to people through his Word. Isaiah understood this when in chapter 6, as you will recall, he was confronted by the manifestation of God in all his immensity, he responds to God’s initiative by saying, “Here am I. Send me!”[2] and the response of God to him is, “Go and tell.”[3] So at the heart of the message is God’s self-disclosure: he has chosen to speak; otherwise, we would know nothing that we need essentially to know. He has made himself known. And in then going forward from there, he picks up servants, and he gives to them the immense privilege of conveying the Word of the Lord.

Now, you say, “Well, we didn’t come here this afternoon, a Monday afternoon, just to be told things that we know. After all, we understand these things; otherwise, we probably wouldn’t come to a conference that is convened with the expressed purpose of encouraging each other in declaring the Word of the Lord.” I understand that, but the confusion that ranges around us at the moment is so demanding that I would think that at least some of us are perhaps tempted to believe what is pushed to us.

During these last four months or so, I’ve had the opportunity of attending worship in all different kinds of places, and it has been an observation—and I’m not going to say anything further than that—it’s been quite a striking thing for me to do. And I’ve discovered that there is just about everything other than the preaching of the Bible. And when you read the local newspapers—and I meant to bring one with me, but in keeping with the rest of the confusion, I went and left it up the stairs in my study—but I wanted to show you the picture of a gentleman who was on the front page of one of the key southern cities, and he was heralded as a wonderful alternative to preaching. And it explained how this man had set aside the pulpit and had set up an easel, and in the time devoted to the preaching of the Word, he had done a painting, with certain music playing in the background which was supposed to induce in the listeners, I guess, I suppose, a susceptibility to his painting which… And I’m no great art critic, but it didn’t look particularly good to me on the front page of the newspaper. But it was extolled as a wonderful breakthrough, and it would appear as though the people would be encouraged to run off in search of the painters, and certainly they don’t want to go looking for the preachers.

Now, again, I think we come to this conference at a time when it appears—and I don’t want to be unkind in this—but it does appear to me that if you have the right personality, your building is in the right location, and you can come up with a biblically diluted concoction of music, drama, self-help principles, and marketing strategy, that you will be able to grow a large congregation without anybody ever really knowing what God has to say in the Bible. That is the environment of contemporary American culture. And out of that we come. And people would say to us, “Why would you want to come and spend such time listening to people simply talking out of a book, talking from a time that’s so long ago and so far away?” And, of course, underpinning it all must be the conviction that the message is God’s self-revelation, and that God has spoken and that he speaks. And so, for that reason, we make no apology for calling this Basics 2002. The first one was Basics, the second one was More Basics, and the third one is Basics 2002. And the chances are we’ll never move beyond the basics, because we want to reinforce for ourselves these essential truths. 

The Immensity of God

Now, what I’d like to do is go really no further than this second verse and point out to you just a couple of things, and first of all encourage you to notice that this begins with the declaration of, if you like, the immensity of God—the immensity of God: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.”

Now, we’re not unfamiliar with the fact that God’s footstool is described in various ways in the Old Testament. In 1 Chronicles, it is the house that was built or the ark that was contained within the house—this great picture of God’s mercy, with his feet, as it were, on the mercy seat in the ark.[4] But that’s not what Isaiah is emphasizing here. It is not God’s mercy that is in emphasis, but it is the immensity of who God is. The vastness of the heavens are his throne, and he puts his feet on the earth.

Now, we’re familiar with the fact… We say to our wives, you know, “Can you give me something for my feet?” And she will pull something from somewhere that fits within the framework of acceptable foot placing; other things we’re not allowed to put our feet on. But it is an expression of its smallness and its apparent insignificance that we don’t bow down before it, we don’t worship it; we put our feet on it. And here we are this afternoon, coming out of an environment in which Mother Earth is revered. Hard to imagine that in the twenty-first century such darkness, such pantheism, such weirdness, could now be on the high streets of our culture, but it is. And what are we to say to our friends and our neighbors who are driven by these thoughts and who are preoccupied with these concerns? How then does God view this? Well, the answer is, “The earth,” he says, “is my footstool. After all, I made everything. Has not my hand made all these things? That’s why they came into being,” he says.

How ridiculous it would be for those who know the living and true God, who has made himself known, to begin to chase after the idols of the surrounding nations.

Shoots us forward in our thinking, doesn’t it, to John 1? “[By] him all things were made; [and] without him nothing was made that has been made.”[5] “Our God,” as our children love to sing to us, “is an awesome God. He reigns.”[6] The idols of the nations cannot see, they cannot hear, they cannot respond.[7] How ridiculous it would be, then, for those who know the living and true God, who has made himself known, to begin to chase after the idols of the surrounding nations.  And yet that’s the temptation, is it not?

Now, I’m not sure just what the interpretive background is in relationship to the questions that come in verse 1: “Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be?” But those of us who know our Bibles at all can go to 1 Kings and think of the dedication of the temple. Because remember, there in Solomon’s great statement, he’s asking the question, “Will God really dwell on [the] earth [with men]?”[8] And of course the answer to that is yes—that God was prepared to allow the creation of a temple, not in order that he would be thought of in reductionist terms, as it were, that somehow he could be contained within these frameworks, but as an expression of his mercy. But he quickly reminds them—and it’s a necessary reminder, I think—he says, “By the way, where are those big buildings you built for me? Where did you put them? The earth is my footstool. Where did you put those cathedrals? Where did you put those big places—those magnificent buildings that you built with all those classrooms and the parking space and everything—that you’re so excited about and preoccupied with and you envy one another about?” There’s a quizzicalness to this; there’s an irony to it, isn’t there?

He’s not scorning these places, but he’s giving perspective on it. And his perspective is possessed of a certain irony. Says Alec Motyer, “Human beings build these towering, obtrusive edifices for God and God professes them hard to find.”[9] “Where did you put those big things you built for me?”

It’s not unusual for us, if we get together at a group like this: “Well, how large is your worship center,” or whatever you like to call it, “and how many of those,” and this and that and the next thing, as if somehow or another we’re all in structural engineering. We’ve all been left on the earth in order to build big edifices, apparently for God but often just to ourselves. God says, “The earth is my footstool, just to give you some perspective. And by the way, where did you put those buildings you were so excited about? I haven’t seen them; I haven’t been looking at them in a while.”

It’s this, you see, which underpins Paul in Acts 17, isn’t it? “The God who made everything, he doesn’t dwell in buildings made with hands.”[10] They’re not irrelevant, but they’re not ultimate. Why is that? Because the scrutiny of God—if you like, the gaze of God—is not where our gaze is so tempted to be. He is not gazing about on the structure; he is gazing on his servant—and on a particular kind of servant, who may be in a whole variety of structures.  

The Priority of God

So, if the immensity of God is conveyed in these simple pictures, you will notice that it then comes to the priority of God, which is stated for us here. “The focus of God today,” says Isaiah, “is not where men and women would expect it to be.”

It’s far easier to build a shrine than it is to walk in the footsteps of the Suffering Servant.

In the New York Times this morning, I noted that there was a big presentation of the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholics and a number of people all going back into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, as if somehow or another this was an expression of a great answer to anything. It’s really not an answer to anything other than the fact that the people who’ve been hiding in there are now out of there, and they can resume what they were doing before. God says, “I’m not actually concerned about the Church of the Nativity.” He probably says, “I’m very surprised at what you did—that you could build a structure and be so focused on the structure that you miss the point of the nativity itself: that ‘He who was rich beyond all splendor, all for your sakes became poor.’[11] That he ‘did not count equality with the Father something to be grasped, but he made himself of no reputation, and taking the form of a servant, he was made in the likeness of man.’”[12] It’s far easier to build a shrine over the thing than it is to walk in the footsteps of the Suffering Servant . And that’s what he says.

The priority is with the individual. A certain kind of individual—not a personality type but an individual who is marked by certain characteristics. Let me quote it to you again from the RSV: “This is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble, and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” The focus of God is not where men and women might expect it to be, but it is with the individual who has a trembling reverence for his Word.  

One ancient commentator put it quite masterfully when he said, “One object in creation, amid suns and stars, secures the gaze of the great Creator.”[13] It’s an awesome thought, isn’t it? You know, from the vantage point of God’s creative handiwork, looking out over all that he has made, he says, “You know, I’m not quite sure about those big things you’ve been building, but I wanna tell you where I’ve been looking. I want you to know the one to whom I’m looking. Let me tell you what marks him.”

Now, just look at these characteristics. First of all, humility. Humility. “This is the one I esteem: number one, he who is humble.” In social terms, the humble were those at the bottom of the heap—the people who were essentially there as a result of more dominant personalities and stronger interests. In social terms, the people who’d said they amount to very little at all. In religious terms, it refers, if you like, to the individual who is willing and ready to take the lowest place before God and for God.

Now, those prepositions are both important, aren’t they? I think most of us might be prepared to say when we drive away in our cars, “I am willing to take the lowest place before God. God, I’m prepared to take the lowest place before you.” After all, the earth is his footstool; I mean, you’re not gonna stand up and challenge that, are we? But it’s a different thing to kneel down at night and say, “I’m prepared to take the lowest place for you, God. I’m prepared to live ‘unsought, unloved, unknown,’” as the old missionary hymn would put it. So seldom sung, and no surprise: “So send I you to suffer unrewarded. To die to dear desires, self-will resign.”[14] What is this? Actually, it’s a form of biblical Christianity.

Humility, and also contrition. Contrition. He who is “humble and contrite in spirit.” Do you remember the man with the most unpronounceable name, Mephibosheth? It’s hard to say it the best of times, but if you have false teeth, it’s a real trial—so they tell me. But Mephibosheth “was lame in both [his] feet.”[15] Now, if I were a Hebrew scholar with integrity, I could say, “And that’s the exact same word that is used.” I’m not a Hebrew scholar. But that’s the exact same word that is used! It’s interesting, isn’t it? This picture of contrition, a picture of weakness rather than strength, a picture that is expressive of spiritual inability in spiritual matters.

“This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and is contrite in spirit,” at the core of their being. It’s not necessarily… We won’t be able to judge one another by externals. Because some who are apparently very humble are really are just like Uriah Heep, and they’re a pain in the neck, and some who are wonderful extroverts are actually very humble in the core of their being. That’s why we should “judge nothing” in relationship to these things “before the appointed time.”[16] Leave God, who sees everything, to work it out. But we ought to judge our own hearts. We ought to discriminate in relationship to ourselves. For we know, as God knows, what is really there when it pulses on our own. Do we feel any genuine sense of spiritual inability, or has time fashioned in us the idea of the expert, or the idea of the powerful, or the idea of “we’ve got it”? ’Cause there are two dangers we face in going to preach, more than any other: one is believing that nobody has any remote interest in what we are about to say, or believing that everybody is intensely interested in what we are about to say.  Both strategies are from the devil, and they neutralize, paralyze, and diminish effectiveness. And it is in the contrition of our spirits…

You see it in Isaiah; you don’t need to go beyond the book. I wonder how you read the end of that little section in Isaiah 6. And the seraph came and took the coal and seared into the lips of Isaiah, and he recognized his predicament before the greatness of God, and eventually, it says, “Here am I. Send me!”[17] How do you think he said that? I don’t know, but I don’t think he said, “Here am I! Send me!” I think the posture of his heart is, “Excuse me? Would I… would I do? Do you think I… I mean, I’m willing. Would I do?” How’s your heart today? “Here am I!” or “Would I do?”

You got it in Jeremiah as well. He has to be told, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth.’”[18] Because it is the perspective of his heart in the core of his being; he is the servant to whom the Lord looks—humble, contrite in spirit, and thirdly, marked not only by humility and contrition but also by sensitivity: “trembles at my word.”

Now, I said I wouldn’t use many cross-references, but turn just for a moment to Ezra chapter 9, and notice there this very same phraseology. You remember the intermarriage of the people of God, their unfaithfulness, how they had taken as wives those who were from the Canaanites and the Hittites and so on. And it was “the leaders and [the] officials” of the people that “led the way,” says the Bible, “in [their] unfaithfulness.”[19]

The trembling at the Word of God is nothing other than a sensitive desire to be obedient to it.

Now, the response of Ezra to this was dramatic. You can imagine what his wife thought when she came down for breakfast and she found him ripping his clothes. And then, once he’d ripped his jersey for a while, he started pulling his hair out, and his beard, and he was appalled. Well, of course, there is a cultural, religious context for that, but it is as it is. And then notice verse 4: “[And] everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles.” Now, this trembling at the Word of God is nothing other than a sensitive desire to be obedient to it —a sensitive desire to be obedient to it.

So where are we? We noted the immensity of God—that the very earth about which we make such a fuss is just his footstool—and that the priority of God is not on the structure but on the servant, and a servant characterized by three things: humility, contrition, and sensitivity that yields itself in obedience.

Examination and Encouragement

Well, then, this provides for us two things: first, an examination, and finally, a word of encouragement.

Doesn’t this examine your heart? Take the test! “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble.” How quickly we endorse ourselves, don’t we? How happy we would be if someone had come and asked us, as they came and asked John the Baptist, “What do you have to say about yourself?” Remember John the Baptist’s response: “You know I’m just really a finger pointing, I’m a light shining, I’m a voice crying.”[20] I fear that some of us would’ve kept the people there for a very long time: “Why don’t you pull up a chair and let me tell you about myself? In fact, I have a CV with me here in my briefcase; I always keep one ready. I’ll pin it to the notice board; I’m sure many others would like to see it.”

But before the splendor of God’s holiness, if nowhere else, then we’ll find out that even our greatest assets, the things that God has given us as gifts, may become the occasion of our worst sins.  Even the apparently great assets that God has given us: leadership, which now becomes autocratic and useless; the ability with the language, which now becomes self-aggrandizing and critical and bitter; the ability to move people, and now to move them in the wrong direction. Isn’t it striking that the prophet’s confession in Isaiah 6, again, is just this? What’s a prophet known for? Words. What’s the prophet’s acknowledgment before the splendor of God’s holiness? “I am a man of unclean lips”[21]—that his greatest usefulness was the potential for his greatest weakness and sin.  And before God’s greatness, he faces up to who he is. “I’m undone,” he says, “and I live amongst a whole group of people that are not unlike myself.”

Oh, we don’t need to dwell on that at all. We understand humility, and we understand the ugliness of pride. That’s the first question on the examination paper.

The second one has to do with contrition. Contrition. A contrite spirit. The kind of acknowledgment of our inabilities rather than our heralding of our great abilities, either imagined or real.

Again, our culture says, “You know, if you don’t stand up and tell everybody how wonderful you are, if you don’t stand up and show yourself to be powerful and strong, then you’re never really going to manage it.” I was listening to an interview the other day; there was a young lady who’s now become a famous actress. I say that because it said, you know, underneath her face, you know, essentially, “a famous actress.” I’d never seen her in my life. But she was talking about how her quest to become well-known and notorious had taken a variety of journeys through menial tasks. And on one occasion she had worked for a popular magazine here in the States, and one of her tasks was photocopying. And she said, “The hardest thing of all was when the editors gave me the responsibility of photocopying the story of a girl the same age as myself who had made it in the world of drama and who was now a superstar, and they told me, ‘Make sixty copies of this.’ And every time I made the copy, I was aware of the fact that she made it, and I didn’t make it.”

Now, if we’re honest, when we look around, we feel that way. Pastoral conferences are some of the worst places you can ever find yourself if you’re not careful. You either go to the table and find a bunch of triumphalists; they’re all, “Oh, big, large, huge, many, thousands, millions!” You move along with your tray, say, “No, not that group.” You go to the next group … say, “Oh, no, not that group either.” So eventually you’re out in the corridors, eating by yourself, you know. It’s tough, when you know that you’re not that good, to be stuck with a bunch of people who are not necessarily good, but they’re convinced that they are! They’re dangerous.

Can you imagine the apostle Paul getting invited to a conference like this? After all, someone had gone and heard him in one of the previous places: “What’s he like?”

“Oh, goodness gracious. I shook hands with him; it was like my hand slipped right out of his paw. The sweatiest paws I’ve ever come across! Seems to be a nervous sort. So fearful, diffident! I’m not sure, but I think he was trembling! No, I don’t think we should have him. We gotta go for somebody more significant than that. Demas[22] has been doing very well! He’s been drawing big crowds—large, large auditoriums, filled.”

People are far more attracted to that, let’s be honest. And everything in the culture says that.

I hate to use a personal illustration, but I remember at London Bible College, when I went with the male-voice choir on a tour to Scotland, the feeling that I had as night after night somebody was picked to be the preacher, and I was never picked. Now, I don’t know… well, I have a good reason why I was never picked. But I remember that feeling, and I remember the mixture of my emotions, and some of them actually just driven by pure, basic jealousy—not even good emotions, not even necessarily driving one to where one needed to be as a result of the experience which is there to humble you. And the Lord’s giving you the best opportunity, and you’re messing that up as well.

Take the test: humility, contrition, and thirdly, sensitivity. Sensitivity. “Trembles at my word.” I wrote for seven years to a girl—she is my wife—I wrote to her for seven years, and four of them across the Atlantic Ocean. And I can still remember waiting for her letters, and setting them down and not opening them immediately for the sense of anticipation that there was in just waiting to hear what had been conveyed. And it’s not bizarre to say that there was a sense in which I trembled both at the prospect of reading it, and also in the reading of it, and also in the aftermath of having read it. And it was just nothing, really—sentiment and affection.

We become so familiar with the Bible, don’t we, as part of our task? The whole idea of a sensitive obedience to it is a different test than the question on the test “Are you familiar with it?” or “Are you able in it?” or “Are you able to preach from it?” That’s not the test. The test is, “Am I sensitized to it?”

The way in which the Scriptures are read publicly by an individual conveys something about the view of Scripture which they hold.

I don’t want to be unkind to any of you, but I do want to say this: that I do think that the way in which the Scriptures are read publicly by an individual says something—at least conveys something—about the view of Scripture which they hold.  I listen to the Scriptures read, and it’s almost as if people are making up their own versions while they’re reading. The tenses are backward, and the plural is inserted for the singular, and bits and pieces are missed, as if somehow or another we believe that God had just inspired the ideas and that the verbal aspect of it is somehow or another extraneous to the issue at hand. You say, “Well, that’s maybe a bit unkind.” I don’t mean it to be, but I do listen, and I want my friends and my colleagues to say, “You know, your approach to the Bible seems flippant. Your approach to the Bible seems casual. Your approach to the Bible doesn’t seem to be beholding to any notion of a trembling sensitivity.”

Well, I find this just a dreadful examination; I fail in every one of these. There’s only three questions on the test, and I failed in every one of them. When I read verse 2, in the second part, it describes the person I aspire to be. When I read the second half of verse 2, it describes the person which, essentially, I’m not. When I read the second half of verse 2, it describes the person that I so clearly need to be. And when I read the second half of verse 2, it describes the person that by God’s grace I may be.

For what is here is not only an examination but an encouragement. You say, “Well, I don’t know that I have done anything that is particularly notorious or I’ve been noted for anything in particular.” I think most of us feel that way; we won’t be a footnote in history. When we look around at those who are apparently effective and influential; when we move from different place to place and we see what others have been granted, both as a responsibility and a privilege; when we look at big places, and we go back, and we go into the men’s room, and we find out that the jolly toilet rolls are gone again, and we know that if we don’t go and get them, no one’ll go and get them; and you’re grabbing three or four of them and walking through, you know: “Here’s the great pastor coming,” you know, “with his toilet rolls here. Here I am!” you know. You’re saying to yourself, “Is this it, Father?” you know. And he says, “Yes. Yeah. Yes, it is, actually.” When we find ourselves feeling that we’re really at the bottom of the pile, that the impact of others seems so strong, so influential, then we need to remember that God’s gaze, the priority of God, is on the humble, contrite, trembling servant.  

“Eh,” you say, “well, at least I can make an attempt at that.” By God’s enabling, right? And with the help of those who love us and care for us. We’re all different. Some are brighter than others. We differ in the basis of our gifting. Not all of us have the capacity for a PhD. But we may and we must heed the call to study for an HCT—namely, a humble, contrite, trembling spirit.  

I start there, really essentially preaching from the flyleaf of my Bible—preaching to myself. If it’s helpful to you, I hope you’ll pay attention as well. This is what the Lord says. We’re here to hear what the Lord says.

Let’s pray:

God our Father, we say with the hymn writer, “O for a heart to praise my God, a heart from sin set free … a humble, lowly, contrite heart, believing, true, and clean.”[23] We ask that at the very threshold of our hours together over these next few days, that you will remind us of your vastness. Forgive us when our preoccupation with ourself somehow clouds the greatness and the wonder of who you are.

We pray, too, that as we think on that, that we might marvel again at your priority, that we will be challenged before the three questions on the test—and yet, at the same time, that we might be encouraged to realize that the work of your Spirit within our lives is to fashion us after your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who in calling people to him said, “I am gentle and lowly in heart.”[24] Forgive us our brashness and our arrogance. The one who was the Suffering Servant, people looked on him and said, “What is this? What is this sorry scene? How is it possible? Surely, ‘cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’[25] You mean that in this picture of weakness there is something for us to believe?”

Forgive us, Lord, for trying to show the world how phenomenally strong and effective we are. Help us to take the way of Christ. And when they came to him in the temple, and they said, “You know, we’ve been looking for you everywhere,” he said, “Did you not know that I had to be about my Father’s business?”[26] “I have come to do your will, [O Lord].”[27]

And God grant that we may feel the same and live the same, that in the imaginings of our hearts and in the actions of our lives we may commend the loveliness of the Lord Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen. Amen.

[1] Isaiah 65:1 (NIV 1984).

[2] Isaiah 6:8 (NIV 1984).

[3] Isaiah 6:9 (NIV 1984).

[4] See 1 Chronicles 28:2.

[5] John 1:3 (NIV 1984).

[6] Rich Mullins, “Awesome God” (1988).

[7] See Psalm 115:4–7.

[8] 1 Kings 8:27 (NIV 1984).

[9] J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 532.

[10] Acts 17:24 (paraphrased).

[11] Frank Houghton, “Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendor.” Lyrics lightly altered.

[12] Philippians 2:6–7 (paraphrased).

[13] T. R. Birks, attributed by Motyer, Isaiah, 534. 

[14] E. Margaret Clarkson, “So Send I You” (1954). Lyrics lightly altered.

[15] 2 Samuel 4:4 (NIV 1984).

[16] 1 Corinthians 4:5 (NIV 1984).

[17] Isaiah 6:8 (NIV 1984).

[18] Jeremiah 1:7 (paraphrased).

[19] Ezra 9:2 (NIV 1984).

[20] John 1:19–23 (paraphrased).

[21] Isaiah 6:5 (NIV 1984).

[22] See 2 Timothy 4:10.

[23] Charles Wesley, “O for a Heart to Praise My God” (1742).

[24] Matthew 11:29 (paraphrased).

[25] Galatians 3:13 (paraphrased).

[26] See Luke 2:41–52.

[27] Hebrews 10:9 (NIV 1984).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.